Monthly Archives: February, 2014

Harry Potter and The American Londoner

Hogwarts The Harry Potter Experience

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

I don’t tend to trust books that are ubiquitously  popular. It’s why I came very reluctantly and very late to Dan Brown (when I read Da Vinci Code, it only confirmed my worst suspicions: watered down Foucault’s Pendulum). It’s why one of my students had to recommend, pester and finally bully me into reading The Hunger Games. I somehow feel that if everyone’s reading it, there must be something wrong with it, as though there is some embedded message washing over us like waves of radiation as we read: we must read this book, we must read this book. When it comes to books that receive near universal approbation, I feel near enough to the same way that Henry Fielding felt about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. 

It is for this reason that I came late the Harry Potter phenomenon. I just didn’t trust throngs of commuters furtively hiding a tattered, well thumbed copy of what was initially known as a children’s book obviously behind the cover of a shiny new copy of War and Peace. Or worse still, trying to dignify their choice of reading material with an ‘adult cover’ as they were later published.

But, we all come to a point in our lives when we need pure narrative, something just to envelope ourselves in and in which to pleasantly laze away our hours after a day, or say a university course that involves a pressure cooker of thought for months to years on end. My wife was at just such a point at the end of her degree when she picked up the JK Rowling saga. I scoffed dismissively for years, but you build up a curiosity. You run into a sort of domestic critical mass, you pick up the book one day and you start reading and you find you don’t want to leave a world in which magic exists. I wasn’t hooked from the start, but I was hooked when I finally started.

Harry Potter Experience

Chocolate Feast in The Great Hall

I mean really hooked as well. All the midnight openings and launch parties, adult and child covers, and the whole magic hat full of the Potter universe. We once stood outside of The East Side Bookshop in Brick Lane with its shutters nearly closed at 2 am with our friend Aoife, driven to get Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, begging to be let in to pay our £10.99 to take home the volume and consume the latest in the saga.

Harry Potter Experience

Eh… Does anyone speak parseltongue?

And now, with a seven year old son of my own who is consuming the books quicker than you can down a pint of pumpkin juice at the start of the school year feast (he’s currently on The Order of The Phoenix), we find ourselves in close proximity to where the magic all happened in the film adaptation of these spellbinding tales. And as luck happens, our very good friend Vikki King, worked on the first three films, making the puppetry for house elves and owls and basilisks (Oh My!) and has a son who just happens to be our little American Londoner’s schoolmate.

Sirius Black's motorbike

‘Borrowed it, Professor Dumbledore, sir. Young Sirius Black lent it to me.’

So it was off to Watford in Northwest London and the Warner Brothers Studios where the films were made to immerse ourselves in movie magic, wander wide eyed through The Great Hall, stroll past Harry’s Gryffindor dormitory with its four poster beds and it’s prep school charm, take turns riding atop a broomstick in front of a green screen on which the good employees at The HP Experience could superimpose all manner of backgrounds to make it look as though you were flying right over the Thames, through a stormy quidditch match, or banking with the winding train line through the middle of the country speeding towards Hogwarts. I have to say, it was rather spectacular. Particular highlights include The Burrow, magically cleaning itself and doing its own ironing, vegetable chopping and folding, and of course, Diagon Alley, the immersive pleasure of passing by Flourish and Blotts unsure of what brand of quills to purchase, dreaming of owning the Firebolt and using it to ascend to new heights of quidditch mastery, or mulling over spending your last few galleons on a packet of puking pastilles from Fred and George’s joke shop.

Harry Potter Experience

‘You stand, Harry Potter, on the remains of my late father.’

Alas, that is one of this venue’s shortcomings, that all of the magic creates a skin deep illusion that cannot really be interacted with beyond a visual, sometimes tactile level. It was the deal breaker for the missus, who wondered, ‘why couldn’t you actually  go into any of the shops in Diagon Alley?’ That was a bit disappointing.’

To which my response was, ‘You want Florida. That’s the Harry Potter Experience where you can actually be a part of the whole thing.’

‘Oh. It’s finally happened hasn’t it? I’m just an American in search of a theme park, aren’t I?’

‘Yup.’

Harry Potter Experience

‘I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, Mr. Potter. Every single wand.’

I sympathize utterly though. It probably could have been a more interactive experience, as though the world of Harry Potter was living and breathing before you on a loop that allowed you to enter and take part at any point. My fellow expat blogger, Sunny In London, has written a useful comparison of the Watford Harry Potter Experience and the one in her native Florida. Enjoyable though Watford was, what I’ve read does make me want to check out the Floridian Islands of Adventure that include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Harry Potter Experience

‘I’ve been thinking. I — I want to go to Godric’s Hollow.’

And as we’re speaking of shortcomings, if you do journey to Watford (which, again, is completely worth it so long as you know what to expect), bring your own food. The comestibles available on the backlot between the two halves of the tour were dire. Dry egg and ham sandwiches or hot dogs moistened with cold saccharine butter beer (all the internet recipes we’ve ever used involve warming the Hogsmeade bevvy in the microwave to help the butterscotch and the cream soda froth up and marry and it’s damn comforting on a cold and windy Halloween night in) were the orders of the day. There was a cafe at the front that didn’t look much more edible and it goes without saying, food prices were ludicrous. We were under what now seems to have been a misconception that BYO was prohibited. I saw people unwrapping pack lunches and digging in and no one was telling them off. It seemed a pretty poor tribute to a series of books so replete with such vivid descriptions of food that can wreak a frankly Pavlovian effect on the most detached of readers.

Harry Potter Experience

‘So The Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?’

Harry Potter Experience

‘Windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon…’

Harry Potter Experience

‘We’ll meet at Flourish and Blott’s in an hour to buy your schoolbooks.’

Harry Potter Experience

My friend worked on Harry Potter. My friend worked on Harry Potter!

One of the great bonuses of having a former employee of the movie franchise with us was that we were let in on the secret that in the wand room at the end of the tour, every wand box has a name of anyone who has worked on any of the films. And though it was like sifting through a mythical haystack for a magical needle, I’m quite proud to say that, in among all the writer’s and actor’s names, I found our friend Vikki’s wand box at which there was much rejoicing. I knew there was a use for my ability to sift through unconnnected symbols and make sense out of verbal chaos somewhere in the universe.

Harry Potter Experience

‘The Castle is a stronghold of ancient magic.’

I would heartily recommend the experience, though pick your times. Traffic was nonexistent first thing on a Sunday. It might well be a different story in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Aside from your pack lunches, you need only bring your imagination and your love of the magic of stories. Now, off to put in some more hours studying occlumency. And then an essay on blast-ended screwts for Monday. Cor Blimey!

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Food > Everyfing Else: Eating My Way Through Brixton

Kaff Bar Brixton

Sizzling Hot Creole Sharing Platter at The Kaff Bar in Brixton

Alas, I was a marked man from the start.

“Now, you’re the vegetarian, aren’t you?” says our gracious and knowledgeable host, Penelope, as our tour of Foodie Brixton begins.

I look around, hoping she’s pointing to someone else and I can chime in with, “Oh, that’s me too, I’m veggie too!” in about 30 seconds.

Nope. It’s me she’s pointing at. I’m the only one.

“Yes… I’m vegetarian,” I concede.

“Do you eat fish?” says our other equally gracious and knowledgeable host, Lindsay, hopefully.

“Eh… no.” Sorry. The short tour, then?

“Perfect!” they both say, smiling congenially, assuring me, “there are plenty of veggie options!” while I wonder if the other tour participants are looking askance at me and wondering how such a creature can exist amidst a London so enthralled in the hipness of toe-to-tail chic.

Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, grew a culinarily magnificent experience walking and tasting south of the river on a splendidly soaking Saturday afternoon hosted by the superlative walking tours company, Fox And Squirrel Walks.

Elsa Ethiopian Coffee Brixton

An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by Elsa

Founded by London enthusiast Penelope Sacorafou, Fox and Squirrel have been providing quirky, bespoke tours around the metropolis for three years now, garnering the acclaim of ‘best guided walks’ from The Guardian. High praise indeed. And deserving. Slight blips concerning herbivorous lifestyles aside, the walk is an awesome experience, one that left me feeling both full, amazed, well-informed, and a little politically engaged with the local goings on concerning this historic part of the capital, due in no small part to the fact that Fox and Squirrel have worked really hard to establish excellent rapport with the locals and newbie restauranteurs and other business owners of Brixton Market.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Frankincense, olfactorily enchanting…

Locals like Elsa and her husband Mo, who own The Shawl cafe and hold Ethiopian coffee ceremonies just across the way on Brixton Station Road. I felt like a bit of a cheat having taken part in this East African ritual before at Asmara of Coldharbour Lane, but felt refreshed with all the history surrounding it. The ginger in the coffee was a surprisingly beautiful flavour, warming the cockles amidst the cold, slate grey of the dullish morning on which the excursion took place.

Ethiopian coffee

Mmmm. Ethiopian coffee. Beats yer average tax-dodging chain any day of the week…

A sharing platter atop a bed of spongy injera bread followed the coffee. If you had asked me ten years ago if I would have guessed that the cuisine of Ethiopia could be mind-blowingly delicious, I would have scoffed heartily, but the beauty of being an expatriate is discovery and thanks to some delightful experiences on both sides of the pond, I now know the error of my ways. The joyfully tactile experience of tearing a swather of injera and scooping some moreishly berbere seasoned lamb, lentil or spinach, was bliss.

Ethiopian Food Brixton

Oh, injera.

A quick swill of some vino verde and down Pope Row to family owned Brixton institution Las Americas Cafeterias, where we were afforded the opportunity to sample the uniquely Colombian Lechona, a whole hog (no literally, and yes, I did enjoy just writing that), crisped and stuffed with vegetables, beans and meat and slow-cooked.

Lechona Colombia

Lechona con salsa

Lechona Colombia Brixton

More Lechona, with cracking crackling. Crisp, delish, perfection, a carnivorous paradise…

Impressive still were the time-consuming lengths to which Penelope and Food Journalist guide Lindsay Faller went to cater to my tastes, requesting an order of arepa, the cheesy, cornmealish Colombian cousin to the tortilla and tailor made to hold the cafe’s dynamite salsa. Latin American comfort food at its best.

Arepas Colombia Food Brixton

Arepas, tasty y vegetariano.

Imbibing was the next order of business from local newcomers to London’s handcrafted brew scene, The Brixton Brewery, where we were given an intriguing crash course in the brewing process before tasting libations that would give any of Hackney’s half-dozen microbreweries a serious run for their money. NB: Brixton Brewery names its beers for the local area and the design for their brand is taken from the African influence on Brixton. Ah how I wished to linger and continue, lotus-eater like to lazily sample more of the Effra Ale.

Brixton Brewery

One of the tiniest microbreweries in London, under the arches in Brixton

Brixton Brewery

Makes be hoppy. Electric Pale Ale, named so for the avenue of the same name.

On to the market proper and Brian Danclair’s Fish Wings and Tings, and a colourful palate of Trinidadian flavours in a lively corner of Brixton. One critic has called Paul’s exquisitely flavoured codfish fritters, ‘like a high five from Jesus,’ and his rotis were equally flavoured to perfection, one goat and one pumpkin, perfect parcels of glee-inducing yum.

Codfish Fritters

‘A high five from Jesus’ I Be-LIEVE!

Fish wings and tings

The surprisingly perfect accompaniment to Fish Wings and Tings food

Brixton Market

The warmth of the market hall on a cold wet day

Pumpkin Roti

Perfect Parcel of Pumpkin Roti

Goat Roti

And the goat roti, omnivorous feasting.

And for dessert? Gelato that injects new vim and vigour into the trendified flavour of salted caramel at Lab G.

Lab G Brixton Market

Pure Creamy euphoria… Lab G

Hustle and Bustle

Hustle and Bustle

Brixton Market

Fusion of Cultures

Brixton Market

Fruits and veg of the market

I can’t say enough good things about the Fox and Squirrel foodie tour. I’ve had enough fun and  built up enough of an appetite reliving it while writing this blog post. My fear is that I’ve said too much, but, as they say, the joy is in the eating. I will say though that it is a far more unique walking tour, its guides more frank in their opinions, wittier in their banter, and far more inclined to specially cater to the whims and requirements of a particular group  than your average London walking tour, making eating your way through Brixton with them well worth the time and the cover price. Easily the best walking tour of London I’ve been on, even if I’m pretty sure there was some shredded pork in that last quesadilla (I’m also quite sure the tenderness will delight the majority of readers).

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

Hot Ginger Beer from The Kaff Bar

London Ate My Pocketbook

Travel and Fashion Writer Evelyn Franklin takes a look at how to make the most out of this fantastic city without it taking the most out of your bank account

Expensive London

Image taken from london.tab.co.uk Photo by Alex Macnaughton / Rex Features

There are few experiences to rival the first few minutes spent in a city you’ve spent a lifetime reading about and watching on TV. In London, your first experience is likely to be one of sensory assault, especially if you arrive at one of the stations: the chaos of the crowds, the damp, musty, smell, the overwhelming grandeur of the architecture, the incomprehensible and garbled announcements. Take a moment, breathe it in, find your way to a coffee stand to protect yourself from the chaos with a shot of caffeine, and feel the next assault: the one on your pocketbook. London is likely rivalled only by New York in terms of sheer budget strain, with even other Brits grimacing at the cost of the basics here. Still, there are ways for visitors to the city to find their way around, even on a shoestring budget. Here are my recommendations.

Mark Noad Tube Map

A more ‘realistic’ take on the tube done by artist Mark Noad in 2011, from travelandleisure.com

1. Walk

The Tube map is not an accurate representation of the actual layout of the lines and stations, and there are plenty of places where various Underground stations are actually closer on foot than they are by train. Cut down on your travelling expenses by seeing more of the city above ground. Earn your pub meal by stacking up the miles, be kind to your pocket, and see more of the sights, all in one go.

2. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely

There are a few standard accommodation options, and most of them aren’t good ones. If you’re on a budget, chances are you’re looking for a hostel: don’t. You may get lucky, but in my experience, London hostels are still horrifically expensive, and many are seedy to boot. You may end up paying an exorbitant rate to be stuck in a damp, dark room with 20 strangers, twelve of whom snore like drains and three (yes, three) of whom are having sex. Unless you’d like to have bed bugs for the rest of your life, choose a hostel very, very carefully, or steer clear. The standard alternative – a large chain hotel, even a cheap one – is not likely to be much better overall: it’ll probably be cleaner, but will also probably break the bank significantly more. So what are your options? One good avenue to explore is to look for timeshare that’s going begging – this can be a better deal and greater comfort than a cramped hostel or dinky hotel. Another good bet is to look for self-catering accommodation, especially if you’re travelling in a group: if it’s just you, it may not work out cheaper, but if you can cram four people into a one-bedroom apartment with a sofa bed, you can split the costs of grocery shopping and save cash by eating at home. And finally, if you’re really broke, look into couch-surfing, which is a sure-fire way to meet excellent people (and a few wonderful weirdos), and end up with your own friendly traveller in future months.

South Bank Book Market

South Bank Book Market, one of my faves (image from visitlondon.com)

3. Head Away From The Crowds

Let’s face it: the best bits of any foreign city are not the ones that people flock to in droves. Save your precious London cash by avoiding the most garish of tourist attractions. A wander around Southbank is definitely worth your time, and you can admire Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament at your leisure, without having to elbow-wrestle with fourteen hundred other tourists to catch a glimpse of something interesting. If historical London really floats your boat, pick a few sites that you absolutely must check out, but don’t blindly go along with what every travel blog ever tells you that you “have to see”; read the reviews, do your research, and narrow it down. Chances are high that you’ll have more enchanting memories from an afternoon’s wander round Covent Garden or a spectacular evening in a pub than you will of the overpriced stampede at the Tower of London. Even those ten minutes you spent with your cheek flattened against the train window when you caught the Piccadilly line at half past five in the evening were probably more fun (and cheaper).

London Souvenir Stall

Yup. London Tat.

4. Don’t Fall Prey to the Souvenir Junk.

What do you think you’re going to do with that “Mind the Gap” t-shirt? It’s not original, or clever. Neither is your miniature London bus. It’s understandable to want to accumulate some mementos to take home with you, but try to make them unique or useful at the very least. Buy a fantastic piece of art at a little market, or a warm scarf that will remind you of London for years to come. If you must buy a standard souvenir, keep it small and cheap, like a fridge magnet or shot glass. That way you won’t weigh down your luggage with unnecessary junk, and when you get home and realise you don’t need it after all, it won’t be difficult to find a place to keep it. Plus, you’ll have saved yourself all the expense of loading yourself up with themed coasters and umbrellas.

Londoners: This is How We Move

At some point in your London life, if you are here for any medium to long term period of time, you will have it: the property conversation. It won’t happen at first of course. You’ll have too many cool things to do and see, but eventually, you will start to peruse realtors’ estate agents’ windows with something approaching avarice in your eyes. You will find yourself in the pub on Friday night with your friends saying things like, “I mean, we can’t rent forever. That’s no good, is it?” and “On average? £300k for a 2 bed! That’s exactly why we’re looking in that area!”

It doesn’t happen everywhere. There are plenty of places in the world — in fact in the rest of Europe — where people are quite happy to rent an apartment all their lives, but there is an Anglo-Irish obsession with owning a space and declaring it their own. If I speak in disparaging tones, they are also self-deprecating ones. I feel like my beloved and I are always thinking about where we can get more space, whether we can keep our place and buy another, how we can work the variables. With this in mind, I give you this intriguing study from our friends at reallymoving.com, based on 34,000 Londoners who used the site between January 2012 and August 2013. It’s pretty fascinating and a little bit surprising, especially for Londoners with an almost instinctual eye on the property market. Love to hear your thoughts on it. Enjoy and Happy Monday!

\reallymoving.com London Moving Trends Infographic

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